Kalamu ya Salaam's information blog



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June 29, 1886 James Van Der Zee, Harlem Renaissance photographer, was born in Lenox, Massachusetts. As a child, Van Der Zee learned piano, violin, and art. He received his first camera at the age of 14 from a magazine promotion. After moving to New York City, Van Der Zee worked as a darkroom technician at a department store. In 1917, he opened his own studio, Guarantee Photography, and was immediately successful. In 1932, he outgrew his first studio and opened the larger GGG Studio. During the Great Depression, when demand for professional photographs was reduced, Van Der Zee supported himself by shooting passport photographs and other photographic jobs. Van Der Zee photographed many famous individuals, including Marcus Garvey, Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, and Countee Cullen. His work was featured in the 1969 “Harlem on my Mind” exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. His complete collection totaled 75,000 photographs. Van Der Zee received the Living Legacy Award from President Jimmy Carter in 1978 and an honorary doctorate degree from Howard University in 1983. Van Der Zee died May 15, 1983. Biographies of him include “The World of James VanDerZee” (1969) and “James VanDerZee” (1973). Van Der Zee’s name is enshrined in the Ring of Genealogy at the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History in Detroit, Michigan.

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  1. June 30, 2013

    Thank you.
    There are some people I would have never known about and the way Mzee Van der Zee brings out his subjects is so complete for lack of a better word.
    I look at some of them and see my close relatives. Aunts, cousins, daughters, nephews, right here in Kenya.
    Lovely work.
    Let us honor him. He’s struck a chord in me, like a great uncle who I never saw.
    Mzee is a Kiswahili honorific for an elder while for our matriarchs, it is Mama.
    I just saw you do some Swahili yourself and the neo-Griot is a very good idea to maintain our oral traditions.
    Keep up with the good work.

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